To mark the close of one year and the start of another, we asked some of our favourite minds from the #TechforGood field two questions:
What story connected to an application of civic tech/tech for good has stood out for you in 2015, and why?
What or where is the greatest opportunity for civic tech/tech for good in 2016 to really have an impact?
Here’s what they told us...
Dan Sutch, CAST
There have been so many great examples this year of exciting and effective #techforgood ventures and projects. From those pioneering new approaches to those who after a few years of development are beginning to get traction and create impact.
To pick one — I'd point to Wayfindr— not just because it's an amazing collaboration between a brilliant charity (RLSB) and a mission-driven development house (UsTwo); and not just because it's a great idea that is resonating with the VI community, transport providers, retailers, funders and tech innovators. Nor only because I'm on their Board [coughs], but because their open-standard approach means the social value embedded in the work necessarily scales with each new partner that builds on the work —including those with a wholly commercial focus. For purely commercial reasons companies can build on the Wayfindr standard, and in doing so, they too are necessarily growing the social impact of creating a more inclusive society.
And that links to an incredible opportunity for #techforgood over 2016. New partnerships between established charities and startups that bring the processes, ideas and nimbleness of startups with the reach, stability and reputation of established charities. We'll see many more of these in 2016 and I'm hopeful (well, it's that time of year) that it will speed the rate at which we see huge impact from our #techforgood community.
Helena Puig Larrauri, Build Up
A few years ago, FirstMileGEO gave people working in conflict contexts a robust, user-friendly interface to collect and visualise data. This was already an incredible advance for peacebuilders — whether international NGOs, governments or civil society organisations. FirstMileGEO is part of a trend in tech that democratises the ability to analyse conflict based on data. I think it is critical that many different people can work with data and present narratives and counter-narratives about a conflict situation.
So great, data visualisation is available to many, but that still leaves the problem of data collection — an expensive and logistically complex operation that many organisations can't afford. In 2015, FirstMileGEO partnered with Findyr to create an integrated system that allows users to collect data "on demand" and receive directly in a user-friendly visualisation interface. So you pick a location in the world, decide what data you need collected, task one of Findyr's tens of thousands of members around the world to gather it for you. Within a few days, it arrives in a dashboard where you can view it in maps and graphs.
I think the potential for this service to extend our understanding of conflict is very exciting. And it also points to an opportunity for #techforgood in 2016: what happens when "on demand" services start to be used to solve the complex operational problems of working in conflict areas? More creative solutions along this line could really make a difference.
Paul Miller, Bethnal Green Ventures
A highlight of 2015 for me was Fairphone launching the world’s first modular smartphone. As well as addressing issues with conflict minerals and worker conditions, it’s a phone designed to last longer by letting you replace or upgrade individual components. In a world of increasingly disposable electronics, that’s an important statement that I hope other manufacturers take note of.
I’m looking forward to seeing far more innovation using tech for good in democracy in 2016. With the whole of the UK voting in local and regional elections, a possible referendum on Europe and a US Presidential election, democracy will be in the news all year. I’m hoping we’ll see people create new tools that deepen democracy and a better connection between government and citizens.
Mevan Babakar, CitizenBeta
Democracy Club! They’re identifying and plugging some major holes in our democracy. Some of the most basic questions that people Google during an election don’t have answers: “Who can I vote for? Where can I vote?” The answers are dispersed in hundreds of PDFs or don’t exist online. Democracy Club took the first one head on, gathering all the available candidate information for the first time at YourNextMP.com— emails, Facebooks, Twitters, even CVs where possible.
With Democracy Club openly supplying, robust, excellent data, we began to see newspapers, campaigns, other civic tech organisations, Google and even parties themselves, creating better tools for voters — which frankly, we all need and deserve.
Arguably 2016 is an important year in terms of elections: Locals, PCCs, Mayorals and potentially a pretty big referendum. If you’ve been sitting on a civic tech idea this is the year to test it. What has been especially exciting to see is different organisations who are all solving different parts of the democratic puzzle, slowly migrating towards each other. The rise of National Voter Registration Day, Vote for Policies, Democracy Club, Full Fact to name a few.
There are some big questions hanging over the community: how should democratic projects be funded, should they be built to make profit? Can organisations be built to be politically neutral? Who should own the the potentially sensitive political data generated by new civic tech tools? I hope in 2016 we will be closer to figuring these out as a community.
Giulio Quaggiotto, Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills, Nesta
Even if it is only at the prototype stage, I followed with interest the soft launch of Mobil-Eyes Us, a project incubated by Witness to support distributed, decentralised activism by combining "empathy machines," task routing and mobile match-making. I think it provides a good insight into the toolkit of the next-generation of activism (conceived as distributed collective intelligence). It also raises important questions, for example, on the nature of empathy and what it means to witness human rights violation in the world or real time streaming.
In general, I like to think this will be the year where we move beyond linear narratives for what civic tech can do, no more headlines like "Ending poverty? There's an app for that.” An area that seems particularly ripe for innovation in 2016 is the refugee crisis, which has already seen a great amount of social and technical ingenuity. Eventually, this points to the broader need for developing civic tech solutions like this that work for a post-national world where many development crises have transboundary implications, from migration to climate change.
Zara Rahman, The Engine Room
It's the simplest, most problem-driven applications of civic tech that stood out most for me. For example, in late 2015 there was a Refugees Hackathon held in Berlin to see what technology solutions could be developed to help the refugee crisis in the city. Some 15-20 apps were developed (by people with the best of intentions) that, to my mind, weren't actually that helpful — many were "aggregator" apps, designed as a one-stop shop for a certain area.
But the most useful app that stood out most for me was a project called LAGESONum, which addresses the very real and concrete problem of refugees in Berlin having to wait for their number to be called at the State Office of Health and Welfare (which is abbreviated to 'LaGeSo’ in German). The department is severely under-resourced, and has not yet updated their processes to deal with increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Berlin, some of whom have to wait for weeks for their number to be called. Almost unbelievably, during that entire time, they are required to wait in person at the department building itself as there was no other way of finding out if a number had been called, than seeing it on the screen. The app built a system for people to check remotely whether their number had been called — a concrete task, but one that is very much needed. You can read more about the app development here.
In 2016, I think that as a broader community, we need to realise that even if a project is intended to be part of "tech for good,” it might not always end up that way. This year I've been gathering stories of responsible data challenges faced by advocacy organisations, which will be published early next year — but in short, one of the main challenges comes from people unwilling to admit or recognise that their well-intentioned tech or data project actually has, or had, potentially harmful impacts. Recognising that, and taking the time to think through the responsible data concerns of any project we embark on will help us to do this, and I believe this is essential if the tech for good projects we work on are to have a positive impact.
"I like to think this will be the year where we move beyond linear narratives for what civic tech can do, no more headlines like "Ending poverty? There's an app for that.” - Giulio Quaggiotto